On a bustling Bloor Street West strip known for its high-calorie meals (St. Louis Wings) and high-carb delights (Cobs Bread), the Runners Shop might seem like an exception as a fitness center for runners and walkers. But there are fewer places they would rather be.
After 45 years in a basement across from the Royal Ontario Museum, the Runners Shop moved above ground to 374 Bloor St. W. in the heart of the Annex more than two years ago.
“It was time to move,” says Lynn Bourque, owner of the store since 2018. “We were surrounded by construction due to Park Hyatt renovations and condo construction, and I wanted to give the store a new face.
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Now, sunlight shines through the front windows, glinting off the fluorescent sneakers and framed photos of star athletes such as sprinter Andre De Grasse and marathon record holder Silvia Ruegger.
The store sells more than 80 different shoes, as well as moisture-wicking tops, shorts and socks in dozens of styles, hats and visors, and a handful of chews and energy gels. Founded in 1975 by Olympian and elite runner Dave Ellis, the independent retailer offers options for cross-country, cross-country, track and urban runners, and offers coaching for those looking to participate in cross-country running and marathons.
Bourque first became familiar with the Runners Shop as a customer and running club enthusiast in the 80s and continued to shop there when she was a server at Canoe and the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the 90s and early 2000s. She had chatted in 2017 with Elaine McCrea, a competitive runner who succeeded Ellis in 1997.
“I was ready to leave the hotel business,” recalls Bourque. “She was also ready to move on and I was looking forward to a challenge.”
As one of the oldest retailers in Bloor West, the Runners Store “has always been well known to the running community,” says Bourque. “And it was one of the pioneers as a specialty store retailer.”
Several customers walk around on a Tuesday morning. A young woman removes her shoes so that a member of staff can judge her gait, walking and running, to best determine the right pair.
“It’s the personal touch we have here,” says Bourque. “The most important thing for us has always been the customer service and the expertise of the people who sell the shoes. We have people who work here who are runners, who do marathons, and so they have seen it all. We will have runners who will come in and say they have a really sore foot or knee, and no one at (some major retailers) will be able to treat that injury with a shoe that’s ideal for them.
Bourque, also a long-time marathon runner and urban runner, exemplifies the kind of expertise customers expect. Holding one of the store’s most popular shoes, the Brooks Ghost, she says, “What you want in a running shoe are two main things: cushioning and energy return. Shoe foams are developed or constructed to give you something back. What you want is a trampoline for your foot, basically.
The store gets busier as we chat, with many customers buy metal spikes for the bottom of their shoes, in order to run safely on winter sidewalks. Asked about the state of business during the pandemic, Bourque smiles and says that with the increased prevalence of outdoor exercise over the past two years, the store has seen a 50% increase over the past two years. his days at the previous location. “We serve a lot of walkers,” she says, “people who just want comfortable shoes for walks instead of running.”
Borque points to another major change from the early days of the Runners Shop. “Running was a men’s sport,” she says, “and something people did to see how long it took them to complete a race. Now so many more women are participating, so many people are running recreationally, and it’s really rewarding to be a part of so many people’s lives and give them the guidance they might need.